Evangelical leader refuses to close Florida megachurch and says coronavirus threats are 'exaggerated'

Evangelical leader refuses to close Florida megachurch and says coronavirus threats are 'exaggerated'

A Florida megachurch is refusing to shut down despite the governor urging people to practice social distancing to avoid the spread of coronavirus across the state.

The church, The River at Tampa Bay which is led by controversial Evangelical pastor Rodney Howard-Browne, posted a livestream of a packed service on Sunday.

Howard-Brown had previously stated that the church would “never close” unless “the Rapture is taking place”.

He said it's the "most sterile building in America, his explanation being that he had machines to kill the virus:

If somebody walks through the door it’s like, it kills everything on them. If they sneeze, it shoots it down at like 100 mph. It’ll neutralise it in split seconds.

Advice from all reliable medical sources says that the virus can easily spread from one infected person to another in confined spaces. Unless all attendees were wearing hazmat suits, it's hard to see how this could possibly be avoided.

On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the number of coronavirus cases in Florida was doubling every three days, suggesting it could see tens of thousands of infections in the coming weeks.

Florida has yet to issue an order for citizens to implement social distancing, while cities such as New York and San Francisco which have also experienced large numbers of infections have been on lockdown since earlier this month.

Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis – who has kept Florida beaches open for Spring Breakers despite cases of coronavirus among students partying in the state – last week appeared to blame New Yorkers for the Florida outbreak. DeSantis did however urge people to stick to social distancing to avoid the spread of the virus.

Just last week, Trump himself said that he hoped churches would be "packed" by Easter, confounding experts who couldn't see a way to ending social distancing by then.

It seems Howard-Brown didn't see a need to even wait until Easter, and is going out of his way to convince his congregation that there is no need to stay home.

In his sermon on Sunday he waxed lyrical about how the media was "exaggerating" the severity of the pandemic, while simultaneously quoting conspiracy theories suggesting that the CDC knew about the virus last year. He implied it would be unconstitutional to close the church's doors.

He also claimed he could not perform the service via videoconference because Google and Facebook would "block" non-Christians from attending. Needless to say, he offered no evidence for how or why this may be the case.

It's not the first time Howard-Brown has dismissed the very real threats to its congregates. In 2017, he claimed the Hurricane Irma – which led to 50 deaths and caused power outages for more that 5 million people across Florida – was a "nothingburger".

Florida has recorded a total of 4,950 cases of coronavirus and 60 deaths.

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